Welcome to Best Ear Forward, an explanation (and playlist) of the music in Best Foot Forward. It includes historical details, a few personal notes about my life with music, and more than a little geekiness about music theory. Also, of course, some glorious music I hope you also enjoy!
You can find the entire playlist here, but read on for more information.
I can’t talk about why the music is relevant without talking about the events of the book, after all. There are links to this page in the author’s notes and on my authorial wiki if you want to come back and read this when you’ve read the book.
I have numbered the chapters if you want to match the music to your reading.
This is a long article – there’s a lot of music to talk about! Before we get started, two important notes.
1) Choosing performance recordings is tricky!
I tried not to get bogged down in finding ‘the perfect performance’. For the named conductors, I found recordings they made of the relevant pieces later in their lives (with different orchestras). For the other recordings, I aimed at orchestras based in London, Vienna, or Berlin, but did not exhaustively research or compare specific performances. When possible, the links come from the groups or recording publisher channels.
Below, I’m generally linking to Wikipedia pages about the pieces (rather than the composers). That way you can get more context if you’d like. The links in the bullet points go to that piece on the playlist.
2) This playlist has all sorts of historical biases in it.
Notably, no female composers! I blame the historical canon of classical music here (and also what was specifically getting performed at a couple of historical performances.) We do get some glorious singers, though…
Why all the music in this book?
It started with my looking for something for Alexander and Carillon to do while they were visiting Vienna (a city with a long and proud musical history). I also knew music was something that would intrigue Alexander in the first chapter. When I realised I could track down the specific performances they went to, of course I had to check out the details. Then I realised they’d be in Berlin in April, when there’s a key and quite political concert.
At that point, I gave into the inevitable and started building a playlist.
The more personal story
This is also the book that gave me back classical music.
I’ve been immersed in classical music since I was tiny. My mother’s father was born in Vienna in 1902, and was a tremendous musician. I grew up listening to the Metropolitan Opera performances on radio on Saturday afternoons (my father loved opera). Over the years, I took piano, flute, and eventually bassoon lessons, sang in choruses and choirs, and picked up folk harp. And I went on to study music (mostly theory and composition) in college, double majoring in Mediaeval/Renaissance Studies.
Then I got to my senior spring, and had a horrible experience in one of my last classes. It was supposed to be a conducting class. But! Our professor tacked on basically an entirely separate class in orchestral repertoire. For each of three exams, we had to be able to identify music in a “drop the needle” test (15 to 20 seconds anywhere in the piece). From that 15 seconds, we had to give the piece, key, movement, and instrumentation. For about 10 symphonic length pieces per exam.
I was horrible at this. We also had three Beethoven symphonies on each of the three exams. I spent a lot of time walking around going “This is the fourth movement of something Beethoven, I can’t remember which one anymore.”
Worse, it utterly broke my ability to listen to almost all classical music for 23 years. I never lost Mozart, I didn’t lose all of Bach, early music (pre-1750 or so) was fine. But everything else between 1750 and the mid-1900s? Very hit or miss. I didn’t flee from it in stores or movie scores, but I couldn’t stand to have it on. I certainly couldn’t write to it.
Until this book, and Carillon being somewhat flippant about the pacing implications of Beethoven’s 5th. I am deeply grateful to these characters in my head for loving music – and playing with it enough as symbol and metaphor and teasing comment – that I could find my way back to it.
On to the music itself!
Chapter 1: Trellech
The book opens with a gala concert at the Opera House, with a varied programme. Reticelle is a composer I made up, known in Albion but not outside the magical community (as is the Illusionist school of music).
I wanted a piece that would lure Alexander to the performance. Given his father’s side of the family, a particular interest in French music seemed likely. Les Troyens is an epic opera, but it also has an interesting performance history, with the first full performance of both parts taking place only in 1890. (This is the performance Alexander references, he was 20.) Based on Virgil’s Aenid, it’s a story that would be deeply familiar to the somewhat Roman-obsessed Great Families of Albion.
It also made it easier to choose a few selections highlighting particular performers. As Alexander notes, the real operatic soprano Luise Reuss-Belce was known for her Cassandre in 1890, before becoming an opera director. She retired in 1933.
Chapter 3 : Ytene
Carillon comments on the experience of Alexander’s wards, how they are in a different key or tonal center than he’s used to. This was a very late addition to the manuscript, because we saw a place for another musical reference. I picked Printemps because it was both in keeping with the nature of spring unfolding throughout this book, and becuase it’s a fascinating mix of orchestral and vocal music (but without comprehensible words). It is, however, a very early work of Debussy’s, and he’s still figuring some things out. (Also entirely appropriate for where things are at this stage in the book.)
Chapter 6 : Vienna, Austria
- Der Rosenkavelier : Richard Strauss
- Symphony no. 35 (“Haffner”) : Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Symphony no. 5 : Anton Bruckner
I knew that Carillon had, in the past, spent several months with an operatic soprano. I wanted to reference that briefly, but also find something that he wouldn’t have heard her perform. Der Rosenkavelier by Richard Strauss was a great choice. It premiered in January 1911, after Carillon’s last time in Vienna. It also has an interesting story, evocative of some of the mystical traditions around roses.
From there, I was casting around for a concert that Alexander and Carillon could go to together, both to begin to make connections in the city, and for something to do with themselves. Once I discovered that the Vienna Philharmonic has their programmes online back to their founding, my musical choices got easier! They attend the concert on March 10th, 1935, conducted by Bruno Walter, with a performance of Mozart’s Haffner symphony, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5.
Bruno Walter began his career as a conductor, pianist, and composer. He was born in Berlin to a middle-class Jewish family. Walter fled Germany in 1933 when it became clear it would be impossible for him to continue conducting under the Nazi regime. He made his home in Vienna, then came to the United States in 1939 after the Anschluss. The comments in this chapter about the playing style of the Vienna Philharmonic are drawn from period reviews about the orchestra, comments about Walter’s conducting style, and various bios of Walter.
Chapter 7 : Vienna, fugues, and ritual music
- Fugue in C Major and Fugure in G Major : Dietrich Buxtehude
- Sonata in D Minor and “The Cat’s Fugue” : Domenico Scarlatti
- Fantasia and Fugue in G minor : J.S. Bach
- Nuper rosarum flores : Guillaume Dufay
- Egmont Overture : Ludwig van Beethoven
Of course, I needed something ordinary for them to be talking about when they’re not discussing a spot of espionage. These two glorious complicated men both do like a fugue. A fugue, for the unfamiliar, is a piece of music with more than two voices that takes a musical theme (or statement) and then plays with it, throughout the piece. It often migrates through different keys, and also often through various applications of counterpoint (multiple voices playing out against, between, and through each other.)
They also discuss one of my favourite early music pieces, because of what the structure is doing. Guillaume Dufay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores was written for the consecration of the duomo (or cathedral) of Florence, Italy. It was thought for a long time to represent the architectural design of the cathedral itself, though more recent research has disproved that. However, it does keep up our rose theme here!
The Egmont overture is a passing reference, but a dramatic piece.
Chapter 10 : Berlin Philharmonic
This brings us to a historical momentous concert – and more than a bit of controversy. Wilhelm Furtwängler, like Bruno Walter, was one of the great conductors of the period. Unlike Walter, the Nazi government wanted him in pride of place.
Furtwängler had a very complex relationship there. While he was principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 to 1945 (and again from 1952 to 1954, after the war), he both took some stands against Nazi pressure, but also did remain in his position. Between 1933 and 1935, he made a number of public statements denouncing antisemitism, supporting Jewish musicians, and did his best to protect members of the Berlin Philharmonic and their families.
In February 1935, Goebbels pushed for a compromise, and Furtwängler’s position was in some doubt. In April, however, he returned to the Philharmonic to conduct a historic performance – the one Alexander and Carillon attend on April 25th, an all-Beethoven programme featuring the 6th or Pastoral Symphony, and the particularly famous 5th Symphony. He was called out seventeen times by applause. His position continued to be complicated (reading on from that link will give you more of the history). While this is still playing out at the concert our heroes attend, I think both of them would appreciate the political complications that Furtwängler is attempting to navigate, as well as his commitment to music before all else.
Chapter 11 : Schubert lieder
Schubert is well known for much of his music, but my particular favourites are his songs, or lieder. (My grandfather used to sing them for fun: they are not easy pieces.) For this playlist, I picked one I especially love, Erlkönig, a decidedly creepy and tragic song about the Erlking or elf-king pursuing a boy and his father. It seemed fitting, given the discussion of some of the German lore and land magic later in the book.
Chapter 12 : Back to Beethoven
Now that I had this Beethoven in my head, it seemed a natural reference in terms of pacing a scene. Almost everyone’s familiar with the da-da-da-daaah of the opening of the 5th, the way it unfurls with pauses before rushing forward again. Using it as a metaphor for a sexual encounter is not what I expected when I started, but I do think it works out pretty well.
Chapter 14 : Mozart
Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41) is one I’ve long loved. It wasn’t named that by Mozart, but reportedly an English music publisher, Johann Baptist Cramer, thought it sounded like Jupiter and his thunderbolts. I find there’s a joyfulness to it. I loved the reference to some of the astrological implications of the planets that thread through this book (Mercury’s quick wits, Jupiter’s endless desire for expansion) and to the illustration of Jupiter and Juno in Carillon’s magical book.
Chapter 19 : A nightclub
I couldn’t set a scene in a Berlin nightclub without some suitable music, but it’s not a musical genre I know a lot about. As I was casting around for recordings, I learned about Werner Bochmann, a prolific composer of the period. One of his pieces, “Gute Nacht, Mutter” has a key place in the soundtrack for Schindler’s List.
Chapter 24 : Another fugue
This one, the Bach fugue in E-Flat Major. This is the longest of Bach’s organ preludes, and Alexander of course would like a complex sort of piece and the variety of musical gestures in the three themes.
Chapter 28 : Tallis, in a forest
Thomas Tallis was an English post-Pact Renaissance composer, and his motet Spem in alium (“Hope in any other”) is notable for being 40 voices. Yes, 40. I chose the recording here because it’s a fascinating visualisation of what’s going on in the score.
Also, it tells you rather a lot about the inside of Carillon’s head, that this is the sort of thing he plays mentally when he’s working through a complex emotional decision. For ten minutes. It is complex enough to keep even him occupied.
Chapter 30 : An altered mind
- Symphonie Fantastique : Hector Berlioz
- Fantasie in F minor : Frédéric Chopin
- Viderunt Omnes : Pérotin
Choosing music for the sequence where Geoffrey is lost in his own head was complicated to do. While what he’s drunk is not opiate-based, there are more than a few pieces influenced by that particular drug in the composition.
(Also, I spent half a semester studying the Berlioz in college as part of a seminar for music majors, and it’s always nice to be able to use a bit of your past education.)
In the case of the Symphonie Fantastique, it’s also part of the story. The piece is program music about an artist with a vivid imagination, who has taken opium in his despair over unrequited love, and has an interesting set of implications for Berlioz’s life. Chopin relied on opium heavily to manage pain related to the condition that killed him (possibly tuberculosis, but there are other candidates). I chose the Fantasie here because I wanted a piece that was evocative of Carillon’s drifting in the aftermath of the goldwasser.
Alexander also references a particular harmonic aspect in this chapter:
“There was an echo in his voice now Alexander could hear it better, made up of open fourths and fifths, the chasm of the harmonies of the late mediaeval period. Music that brought one to awe and too often to shame”Alexander Landry – chapter 30 – Best Foot Forward
For this, I chose the Viderunt Omnes, by Pérotin. It has rather cheerful words, but is playing with the harmonies of the period in entirely new and challenging ways.
Chapter 33 : Dangerous magic
- Danse Macabre : Camille Saint-Saëns
- Music for the Royal Fireworks : George Frederic Handel
- “Triumphal March” from Aida : Guiseppe Verdi
Naturally, this calls for a bit of creepiness, and the Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre does that so well. It also uses a particular tritone, known as the diabolus in musica or “devil in music” in the Medaeval and Renaissance periods.
I then wanted something triumphant for their success. We lead off into Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (written and first perfomed in London), and Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida. (Not least for the nod to the Egyptian setting. It was commissioned by and first performed at the Cairo Khedivial Opera House.)
Chapter 38 through Intimacies of the Seasons : British pastoral music
- Variations on an Original Theme (The “Enigma Variations”) : Edward Elgar
- Lux Aeterna : Edward Elgar
- Symphony No. 3 (“Pastoral”) : Ralph Vaughn Williams
Chapter 38 through the epilogue novella, Intimacies of the Seasons brings us to British pastoral music. Elgar and Vaughan Williams are two of the masters of this particular period. In 1935, Elgar had only died the year before. Many of his influences come from continental music, a nice way to tie back into the location of most of this book. The Enigma variations are one of his best known pieces. Lux Aeterna is an amazing and moving vocal piece.
Ralph Vaughn Williams was in the upward rise of his composing career in 1935. This symphony, his “Pastoral” was written in 1922, in the aftermath of the Great War. It seemed an excellent piece to finish on, with its connections back to that time, and what that means for both Geoffrey and Alexander.